Stage One: Non-Directive Meditation
Chan (Zen) is, of course, the mystical tradition of Buddhism which originated in China nearly two thousand years ago. Chan, the transliteration of the Sanskrit term, dhyana, meaning to dwell, or to meditate, is a difficult thing to wrap the mind around. In more ways than one. There is much allure to Zen in the western world these days. The term has gained popularity by its use to sell products and services, to entice people to join clubs and groups, to sell books, etc., so it’s not surprising that there is some misunderstanding about what Chan is.
Chan is indeed about meditation, as the name implies, but it’s also about the journey that accompanies meditation. There is no “point of arrival” with Chan, but there is a flowing, a cascading sequence of discoveries that unfold as we travel its path. To get there takes some preparation, for the mind and for the psyche, as well as for the physical body: they all need to be in the “right place” for everything to work. What is that “right place”? Where do we start, and how to we get to where we want to go?
First, we have to be alive. This may seem like a flippant thing to say, but consider how many of us go through our days oblivious to the fact that we are, indeed, alive? We go through all the motions of being alive: getting dressed, eating breakfast, driving to work, talking with people; but how much of this is simply reflexive? Without full awareness, how much can we consider ourselves fully “alive”? To breath and eat and defecate has a certain sound of life about it, but to what extent are we aware of it all? So the first step is to become alive – to become increasingly aware of ourselves and the environment in which we live. This first process involves training the mind to see, and is what I refer to as Stage One in a four-stage process. Practice here involves harmonizing the mind, psyche, and body. The results are reduced stress, improved sleep, improved ability to engage in reciprocal relationships with colleagues, friends, and family, improved cardio-vascular health, and, perhaps most importantly, a greater sense of contentment and well-being.
This beginning practice goes by many names in popular culture: Transcendental Meditation [TM], “mindfulness meditation”, Acem meditation, and MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) are but a few. In scientific circles they are generally all categorized as “non-directive” meditation techniques. They are non-directive because we don’t try to focus (direct) our concentration on anything, but simply do our best to watch the mind as it moves from one thing to the next, allowing it to do what it will.
I should note that some Japanese-based Zen teachers seem to equate Zen, in its entirety, with this stage of practice. Instructions from the popular Japanese-based Soto Zen website (sotozen-net.or.jp) read: "Do not concentrate on any particular object or control your thought. When you maintain a proper posture and your breathing settles down, your mind will naturally become tranquil. When various thoughts arise in your mind, do not become caught up by them or struggle with them; neither pursue nor try to escape from them. Just leave thoughts alone, allowing them to come up and go away freely. The essential thing in doing zazen [sitting meditation] is to awaken (kakusoku) from distraction and dullness, and return to the right posture moment by moment." [Note 1]
This first practice is generally very easy for anyone to do and to gain some degree of accomplishment with quickly. For one who has never approached meditation of any kind before, here’s what I recommend for getting started with Stage One:
- Avoid eating a big meal before starting. Find a place without distractions (such as people asking you to do things for them).
- Sit comfortably on a chair without leaning back on the back-rest. Usually sitting on the first third to half works well. Avoid couches or furniture with soft cushions: a firm seat helps the posture. Sit with the back “straight,” the head and neck in-line with the spinal cord, the shoulders relaxed.
- Take five to ten slow deep breaths, being sure to exhale all the way before starting the next breath.
- Close the eyes and observe what the mind is doing. It may be hearing a car drive by, or noticing an itch, or thinking about all the laundry that needs cleaning, or the tomatoes that need picking. Just sit and watch. If the mind gets lost in the mental-chatter, simply bring it back to watching again. Each time you bring the mind back to watching it gets easier.
- The first time try going for five minutes. You can set a timer. If you lose the ability to pay attention, stop and take a break. The next time, add a couple minutes to the time and work your way up to 20- or 30-minute sessions.
Do this once a day for three months. After the first month you will notice a great many changes. You will have less anxiety/stress, you will feel better, sleep better, and will notice improvement of your overall physical and mental health. By the third month it will have become a new, natural way, of being.
For those of you who may doubt the value of this as you consider the time and dedication it will take to do it for three months, looking at the research that has been done may help settle any doubts about its efficacy in improving health and well-being.
In 2006 B. R. Cahn and J. Polich found that mindfulness practices stimulated the middle prefrontal brain associated with metacognition and self-observation. Juergen Fell and others found that first-time meditators practicing non-directive techniques quickly learn to moderate alpha-wave activity (8 to 12 Hz, characteristic of pre-sleeping/pre-waking states), slowing its rhythm while increasing its power, and observed that this effect was independent of how much experience a person had with mindfulness methods, or from what “school” they belonged to. Other researchers have shown this form of meditation to lower blood pressure (Robert D Brook, et al.), help in rehabilitation from drug abuse (A. Zgierska), and offer many other health benefits (P. Grossman).
There is no risk, no danger, associated with doing Stage One practice and its benefits are numerous if not profound. Many people who get through Stage One get “hooked” and continue on to Stage Two: concentration, the precursor to contemplation and Chan.
In the next installment, I will explain Stage Two and offer exercises for those intrepid souls ready to forge ahead…
Note 1 This notion, which some also refer to as “just sitting,” is a fairly recent development in the history of Zen, as the foundation of Chan in the Mahayana Sutras makes no reference to non-directive techniques, but rather begin with concentration, or directed-meditation, approaches (c.f., the Surangama Sutra for example).
Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits, A meta-analysis by Paul Grossman, Ludger Niemann, Stefan Schmidt, Harald Walach, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, July 2004, Volume 57, Issue 1, Pages 35–43.
Mindfulness Meditation for Substance Use Disorders: A Systematic Review , by Aleksandra Zgierska, MD, PhD, David Rabago, MD, Neharika Chawla, MS, Kenneth Kushner, PhD, Robert Koehler, MLS, and Allan Marlatt, PhD, Substance Abuse 2009 Oct–Dec; 30(4): 266–294.
Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure : A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association, by Robert D Brook, Lawrence J. Appel, Melvyn Rubenfire, Gbenga Ogedegbe, John D. Bisognano, William J. Elliott, Flavio D. Fuchs, Joel W. Hughes, Daniel T. Lackland, Beth A. Staffileno, Raymond R. Townsend and Sanjay Rajagopalan (April 22, 2013). Hypertension 61 (6): 1360–83.
Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies, by Cahn BR, Polich J., Psychol Bull. 2006 Mar;132(2):180-211.